Afterlands

Afterlands

by Steven Heighton
     
 

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In 1871, nineteen men, women, and children, voyaging on the Arctic explorer USS Polaris found themselves cast adrift on an ice floe as their ship began to founder. Based on one of the most remarkable events in polar history, Afterlands tells the haunting story of this small society of castaways -- a white and a black American, five Germans, a Dane, a Swede, an…  See more details below

Overview

In 1871, nineteen men, women, and children, voyaging on the Arctic explorer USS Polaris found themselves cast adrift on an ice floe as their ship began to founder. Based on one of the most remarkable events in polar history, Afterlands tells the haunting story of this small society of castaways -- a white and a black American, five Germans, a Dane, a Swede, an Englishman, and two Inuit families -- and the harrowing six months they spend marooned in the Arctic, struggling to survive both the harsh elements and one another. As the group splinters into factions along ethnic and national lines, rivalries -- complicated by sexual desire, unrequited love, extreme hunger, and suspicion -- begin to turn violent. Steven Heighton's provocative novel fills in the blanks of the Polaris's documented history and explores the shattering emotional and psychological consequences faced by those who survive.

Editorial Reviews

Bruce Barcott
The Polaris expedition remains a minor footnote in the annals of Arctic exploration, but Heighton has used it to create a novel of big ideas and beautiful language. It can't have been easy for a poet to exercise restraint in a 400-page book set in the Arctic (so many ways to describe white!), but he picks his moments well, offering quiet bits of dazzle in perfect moderation. The crewmen sleeping head-to-foot are "dueling pistols in a lined case." The Inuit woman Hannah, the object of both Tyson and Kruger's unrequited affections, speaks English well but haltingly, "each word placed as carefully as a foot along a seacliff path."
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The retrofitted U.S. Navy tugboat Polaris set out on an expedition for the North Pole in 1872. After getting stuck among ice floes off the coast of Greenland for months, its multinational crew of 25 (plus eight women and children) were separated, with half trapped on the ship and the others trapped on an ice floe onto which they had temporarily decamped. Poet and novelist Heighton (The Shadow Boxer) brilliantly riffs off (and presents snippets of) the diary and memoir of real-life Lt. George Tyson, who was among the ice floe denizens; they survived seven more months before being rescued. When the captain dies under mysterious circumstances, Heighton focuses on Kruger, a German nonconformist who believes "the idiot willingness to take sides is what feeds the abattoir of history." Latent romantic feelings between Kruger and the group's married Esquimau translator, Tukulito, or "Hannah," further complicate an already desperate situation. Tyson, who eventually took command, skillfully manages to steer the diminishing floe to waters frequented by sealers and steamers. Heighton is terrific on the group's isolation and Tyson's often laconic responses to it. He's less good in dramatizing the postexpedition lives of Tukulito, Tyson and Kruger, but this novel's scale, its delight in detail and its psychological insight make it an exceptionally satisfying adventure. (Feb. 6) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A well-known incident of Arctic survival and its more obscure aftermath form the rich subject of the Ontario poet-novelist's ambitious successor to his excellent debut novel, The Shadow Boxer (2002). The afflicted vessel was the Polaris, which during an 1871 voyage toward the North Pole became locked in ice, jettisoned 19 crewmen and passengers on an ice floe off the Greenland coast (to lighten the ship's load), then inexplicably abandoned them to a six-month ordeal, before finally being rescued. Heighton's story begins in the "after lands" of Groton, Conn., where in 1876 Inuit survivor Tukulito (aka "Hannah"), the Polaris's interpreter, must endure her husband's compulsive departure on another polar expedition, and the death (from the after-effects of prolonged exposure to cold) of their beloved daughter; and a year later in Mexico, whence German crewman Roland Kruger, an embittered intellectual and dreamer, has fled his memories of the Arctic ordeal and his hopeless unrequited love for Hannah. The extended flashback that describes the six-month misadventure is a numbingly dramatic, visually stunning tour de force, which mingles terse narrative with excerpts from Arctic Experiences, the popular book later fashioned from the journal kept by American officer Tyson, who became by right of seniority de facto "captain" of the survivors-and whose version of power struggles between his embattled command and (mostly German) rebel seamen earns Kruger's lifelong enmity. Tremendous sequences and images (e.g., a battle over a seal's carcass, gorgeous visions of previously unseen meteorological phenomena) animate this bravura centerpiece-whose effect is, alas, diffused by another lengthy "after land"story, focused on Tukulito's sad fate and Kruger's stoical empathy with mountain Indians besieged by a punitive Mexican Army force. It's another great story, but a departure from the one that Afterlands tells so splendidly-and to which the brilliant Heighton might better have confined himself.
From the Publisher

"Skillfully constructed, beautifully written...Afterlands is a superior example of a rare breed: the literary adventure story." --Book World The Washington Post

"A big, ambitious literary adventure tale full of blood, gristle, and soul...Afterlands conveys in stark yet beautiful prose the awful reality of what happens both on the ice and in [the soul]." Guardian

"A magnificent novel about the wreckage of history -- both the history that happens to us and the versions of it we create." The New York Times Book Review

"A sophisticated, densley layered fictional exploration of survival, love, betrayal, adn the personal cost of history...a novel of big ideas and beautiful language." The New York Times Book Review

"Compelling, vividly imagined, and written in rich and precise prose...But the real force of the book comes from the currents of history -- of young nations rising and ancient civilizations ebbing -- that run just below the surface." The Financial Times of London

"Unforgettable...a big, wide, deep book...an intensely felt fiction." The Globe and Mail

"A masterpiece, packed to the rafters with sumptuous language, sweeping vistas, contained fury, sorrow, and unrequited love." --Daily Express (UK)

"A terrific read...Heighton excels in telling a tale of hardship, madness, love, loyalty, and sacrifice." --Irish Examiner

"A wonderful, whiteout epic." Gentleman's Quarterly

"A rich tale...a story of grand human passions...a subtle portrait of qualified heroism and ambiguous villainy." --Sunday Times (South Africa)

"Superb...There's nail-biting adventure, unforgettable character studies, lessons about the resurgance of nationalism in today's post-9/11 world." --Ottawa Citizen

"A shattering read." Men's Journal

"[A] dramatic, visually stunning tour-de-force." Kirkus Reviews

"Terrific...this novel's scale, its delight in detail, and its psychological insight make it an exceptionally satisfying adventure." Publishers Weekly

Selected as a Best Book of the Year by Globe & Mail, National Post, Vancouver Sun, Ottawa Citizen, and others

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780547527086
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
02/05/2007
Sold by:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
416
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt

Afterlands


By Steven Heighton

Random House

Steven Heighton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0676976778


Chapter One

One
BURY ME AT SEA


But what thinks Lazarus? Can he warm his blue hands by holding them up to the grand northern lights? Would not Lazarus rather be in Sumatra than here? Would he not far rather lay him down lengthwise along the line of the equator . . . go down to the fiery pit itself, in order to keep out this frost?
--Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Wanted to shadow the three of you, all scattered
by the one storm. Tracked you (or some sediment,
cinder of you) to churchyards along the seaboard
near Mystic, or indio graveyards above the gaunt
gorges of Sinaloa -- a search party of one, a mere
century-plus late. No, more -- with every resource
I searched, clue traced, a shade more of your oblivious
withdrawal, waning to ash, as I scrawled my course
(it seemed) ever nearer, through tiered detritus
downward, by the spadeful, a volunteer
unwilling to leave the warlike scene --
recovering just fragments, fallout, DNA.


--Dawson City, Yukon, September 2001

Hartford, Connecticut, September 1876

An Esquimau playing Mendelssohn is a tremendous novelty. The local gentry fill the seats of the Main Street Memorial Hall, whiskery gentlemen in frock coats and wing collars, the ladies in gowns and layer-cake hats trimmed with ribbon and mock flora. Their elegant figures are shored up by trusses or corsets -- synthetic exoskeletons fortified with whalebone. If any members of this audience make a connection between their own underclothes and the presence onstage of a child from the Arctic whaling grounds, they don't let on. They are effusive in their praise of the little Esquimau. She is clearly a prodigy. She is only ten years of age! She has been playing the piano for only three years! How charming she looks in her cream cotton dress with the puffed sleeves, the ends of her braids joined at the small of her back with a red ribbon bow. As they whisper and nod, a lush welling of self-appreciation and security warms their chests.

In fact, Punnie is not playing as well as she did when rehearsing for the recital with her teacher, Mr Chusley, who will be performing after her and before the chief attraction, a master recitalist from Leipzig who is said to have known Mendelssohn personally. This lean and tousled master, seated severely in the front row, will be aware that the girl has committed a few slips. What he doesn't know is that her playing also lacks its usual earnest, beguiling zest. Punnie is dizzy and has to concentrate to suppress the dry scraping cough that has been gaining on her since April. Throughout the summer holiday she has been practising, as much as four hours a day. There is something unnerving, quietly violent, in her discipline. She's the sort of only child who lives for the endorsement of adults. More and more these days she coughs while she rehearses. She and her parents, Tukulito and Ebierbing -- Hannah and Joe is how they are known to Americans -- came down from the Arctic after the rescue over three years ago, but the poor child still carries the Far North in her lungs. So Mr Chusley puts it. He even urges her to practise less.

Actually Punnie's cough began not in the Arctic but after their journey south.

Stiff in the aisle seat of a middle row, Tukulito sees that her daughter is struggling, but the audience is so caught up in the spectacle of this oddly pallid Esquimau child playing one of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words -- op. 30, no. 1 in E flat -- that they don't notice. Tukulito's face has the waxen stillness of somebody watching the last stages of a shipwreck, trying to contain her alarm -- a stillness that could be mistaken for calm. This is her usual expression. Only her eyes, sharp with practical understanding and quick sympathy, lend life to her face; enough life for a dozen faces.

In fact, the child is something of a prodigy. Mr Chusley, a soft little man with sombre brown eyes, rumpled clothes and clove-scented breath (and, unluckily for his dreams, stumpy hands and fingers), has said that he foresees fine fine things for the girl. Very fine indeed. And Tukulito grasps that this is not a man given to flattery. A stutterer, he keeps his utterances short. I've never yet tutored a child possessed of such a, such a faculty of silent concentration. Your Punnie seems to me utterly undistractable. Chusley does not then detour into ethnological conjecture, like some of the well-meaning Groton neighbours, on whether this is a specialized trait--a result of the savage's need for vigilance by the seal's breathing hole, or his wife's Oriental patience, acquired in the igloo waiting with the children for her mate's return. . . . For some years the life of the Esquimaux has gripped the romantic imagination. They've become a staple of polar adventure novels, which emphasize their fortitude, their loyalty, their stealth, their rare inscrutable lapses into cunning and violence. In the 1860s the fascination with Esquimaux even hatched a short-lived fad for duelling with bone harpoons. The Polaris debacle and Lieutenant Tyson's subsequent drift on the ice with eighteen other castaways have made them even more popular; Tukulito's husband Ebierbing was in some ways the hero of Tyson's published account of the drift (as Second Mate Kruger was its villain), and this Esquimau family have been celebrities since settling in the port town of Groton, Connecticut.

Tukulito still thinks about Mr Kruger but has not heard from him in some time.

The child is small for her age, no grand piano ever looked huger. She will start a piece straight-backed on the bench but as she plays she will tip gradually forward so that by the last bar her face is just above the keys. (Mr Chusley has tried to correct this.) Her playing is stronger now, op. 67, no. 5 in B minor, "The Shepherd's Complaint." Those firm-pacing, stately notes in the minor until, just as the ear is tiring of the solemnity, the tune resolves into major.


Excerpted from Afterlands by Steven Heighton
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

STEVEN HEIGHTON is the internationally acclaimed author of the novels Afterlands and The Shadow Boxer, a Mariner Original that was selected as a Publishers Weekly Book of the Year. He has also written several books of poetry, short fiction, and essays. His work has received numerous awards and has been translated into nine languages.

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